What might have been? That's the question posed by the newly restored Mercedes-Benz 1938 540 K Streamliner that will get its international public première at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elégance this month. The streamlined version of the 540 K was originally built to participate in a race that was cancelled due to a minor event called World War Two, but has since been restored to its original condition.
The 540 K Streamliner was one of German automotive engineering’s false starts. A one-off intended to bring the 540 K line into the streamlined age, the 1938 special developed at Mercedes’ Sindelfingen plant was designed for high-speed, long distance motoring. It was based on a chassis from the standard-production 540 K, and was originally built for the Berlin-Rome race of 1938, but this was postponed until the next year and then cancelled when war broke out. During the war, it was used by the German branch of the Dunlop tire company as a test vehicle and then retired after 1945 and left to decay in storage for decades.
Despite ending up in mothballs until it was rediscovered and restored last year, the 540 K Streamliner had its chops. It boasted a five-liter, eight-cylinder, in-line, supercharged engine pushing 180 bhp (132 kW) for high acceleration and an unusually long gearbox to avoid over-revving for a top speed of 114 mph (185 km/h).
But what really made it stand out was its ultra-streamlined, lightweight aluminum body developed under wind-tunnel testing. According to the company, the body and undercarriage were designed to be as smooth as possible to the point where the Mercedes badge was painted on the bonnet. However, it was too heavy for the tires, which is one reason Dunlop used it as a test bed.
Like the Mercedes-Benz 1952 300 SL, the 540 K Streamliner was restored by Mercedes-Benz engineers to its original condition using the skills, methods, parts, and materials of the period based on extensive document research by company engineers. The restoration took over a year as the team solved problems, such as finding the correct paint by examining traces left on the body, and matching the original leather for the interior.
"The 540 K Streamliner represents the embodiment of perfection in its purest form," says Michael Bock, Head of Mercedes-Benz Classic and Customer Center. "The integrity of its overall design as well as numerous technical details do not only epitomize the innovative power of the Mercedes-Benz brand but also its expertise in the development of one-off vehicles to meet the very highest expectations in terms of design, comfort and customer benefit."
In addition to the 540 K Streamliner, Mercedes-Benz is also bringing another bit of history to Pebble Beach in the form of its Mercedes Grand Prix racing car, which ran in the French Grand Prix on 4 July 1914, at the 7.6-kilometer (4.7-mile) circuit near Lyon, where it pulled off the first one-two-three victory in Grand Prix racing. It has a 4.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that was cutting edge a century ago as it punched 106 bhp (79 kW) for a top speed of 111 mph (180 km/h). There are only three of this type of car still in existence in the collections of George Wingard, the Collier Collection and the Mercedes-Benz Classic collection, and all are in full running order.
The restored 540 K Streamliner will be in the Tour d’Elégance on Thursday and goes on public display on August 17. Gizmag will be there to see it in the flesh, and we'll bring you more details of this and many of the other magnificent vehicles expected on the lawn at Pebble Beach.